Ontario announced Wednesday that it’s accelerating its COVID-19 booster shot rollout over fears around the Omicron variant, with everyone 18 or older eligible to book their third vaccine dose starting Monday.
The province is also shortening the interval required to wait before getting a booster from six months to three months after a second dose and is launching a holiday testing blitz with free rapid antigen tests available as of Wednesday at pop-up sites, including malls and libraries, as well as some LCBO stores.
“Nothing matters more than getting these third shots into arms,” said Ford at a news conference on Wednesday.
Starting Wednesday, anyone 50 or over who has already booked their third dose at the prescribed six-month interval can now re-book their appointment for three months after their second dose.
The province says large companies will help run workplace and community clinics and some settings, such as pharmacies, may start offering walk-in boosters to anyone 18 and older as early as this Friday.
When asked to clarify where the walk-ins would be available, a provincial spokesperson told the CBC in an email that “it’s up to pharmacies to determine if they’re prepared” to start giving out third doses on Friday.
Capacity limits for theatres, museums
Capacity limits are also being tightened to 50 per cent for indoor venues that would normally hold 1,000 people or more.
Those venues include:
- Entertainment facilities.
- Meeting and event spaces.
- Sports venues.
- Bingo halls.
The restrictions come into effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET.
Asked if new limits could be coming for restaurants and bars, Ford said that “everything is on the table” but that “locking ourselves down to get out of this isn’t the solution.”
Restaurants are doing “an incredible job,” he said.
“There’s a big difference between a restaurant and 20,000 people in an arena.”
Wednesday’s announcement did not include any new restrictions for private gatherings or for retail establishments, such as malls.
1,808 cases reported Wednesday
The booster expansion was announced on the same day Ontario reported 1,808 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest daily numbers since late May.
Meanwhile, preparations for an accelerated COVID-19 booster shot rollout are already underway in some parts of Ontario.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said the city’s Emergency Operations Centre was escalating its efforts to focus on booster vaccinations amid community spread of the variant.
“We are working hand in hand to rapidly increase the capacity for first, second and third doses for all eligible residents in Ottawa,” Watson wrote on Twitter.
Public health staff in the city had been asked to “pause” routine work to help with immunizations in light of the infectious variant threat, according to Watson’s post. Several other public health units are doing the same.
Calls to postpone non-urgent procedures
The president of a professional group representing family doctors in the province also called on members to defer non-urgent procedures so they can join the immunization effort.
In an open letter, Ontario College of Family Physicians president Liz Muggah advised that members connect with local public health units to see how they can help with vaccination clinics. She also recommended that they reach out to booster-eligible patients or vaccinate people in their offices where possible.
“Family doctors are being asked to be a part of a concerted health system effort,” she wrote in her Tuesday letter.
She said that the province’s chief medical officer has made similar requests to public health units, pharmacies and hospitals.
Muggah said booster shots for people age 50 and older are the priority for the next two weeks, based on current evidence around vaccine booster effectiveness against Omicron, and such an effort will require more than 200,000 vaccines administered each day in the province.
On Tuesday, public health units collectively administered 108,579 booster doses.
Public health units called for action on Omicron
Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, calls had been growing for the province to expand booster access to protect against the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
Moore has said the variant will become dominant soon, and all cases should be treated as Omicron going forward. A new report from Public Health Ontario found that an estimated 80 per cent of all new cases on Dec. 13 were caused by Omicron.
A group representing Ontario’s local public health units and health boards had written to Elliott asking for provincial strategies to combat Omicron, including public health restrictions where needed and “clear public messaging about the gravity of the situation.”
The Tuesday letter from the Association of Local Public Health Agencies said provincewide restrictions will be needed to deal with Omicron, suggesting capacity limits on workplaces and gatherings and requiring proof of vaccination in more settings.
It also called for leadership on communicating the situation to the public, noting that after a dip in cases this autumn, people’s adherence to simple public health measures is slipping, with “very little understanding of the threat that is suddenly before us.”
“Even before the emergence of the Omicron variant, many parts of Ontario’s health system, including public health units and hospitals, were reaching the limits of their COVID-19 response capacity,” the letter said.
Admissions to ICU stay stable
Wednesday’s case count marks a 79 per cent jump over Wednesday last week.
The seven-day average has risen to 1,514, a 50 per cent increase over the same time last week. The metric is on pace to double every 12 days or so.
While cases are rising quickly, the burden on hospitals has remained relatively steady. As of Tuesday, there were 357 people with COVID-19 being treated in hospital, up a bit from 333 last Wednesday.
Moreover, there were 154 patients being treated for COVID-related illnesses in intensive care units, compared to 155 at the same time last week.
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has cautioned that hospital admissions are a lagging indicator, and a surge in new cases will inevitably lead to an increased strain on hospitals. The magnitude of that strain, though, is still unclear.
In its most recent modelling, the group said there could be between 250 and 400 COVID patients in ICUs by the end of January. But that modelling did not fully account for how the presence of Omicron could change things in the province.
For its part, the provincial government has said that up to 300 COVID-19 patients could be safely admitted to critical care before urgent non-COVID related care would need to be postponed.
Wednesday’s updated figures come after the government announced on Tuesday stricter testing and vaccination policies for long-term care facilities, including that all visitors — with a few key exceptions — must have two doses to enter a home.
Meanwhile, here are some other key pandemic indicators and figures from the Ministry of Health’s daily provincial update:
Tests completed: 44,726, with a six per cent positivity rate.
Active cases: 12,666.
Deaths: Nine, pushing the official toll to 10,093.